Paracels is a collection of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They have no indigenous population to speak of, only Chinese military garrisons of 1,400 people, according to the CIA Factbook.
The U.S. Navy statement said Benfold also challenged the claims of Vietnam and Taiwan.
“All three plaintiffs require either permission or prior notice before a military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through territorial waters. Under international law … all states’ ships – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through territorial waters. The unilateral the imposition of any permit or prior notification requirement for innocent passage is illegal, “the U.S. Navy said in a statement.
Claiming the rights to free navigation involves sailing within the 12-nautical-mile territorial boundary of a nation’s coastline recognized by international law.
But the navy designated China to do what it calls “straight baselines” enclosing all the waters of the archipelago, saying Benfold also challenged those claims.
“International law does not allow continental states, such as China (People’s Republic of China), to establish baselines around entire scattered archipelagos,” the United States said in a statement.
“With these baselines, China has sought to claim more inland waters, territorial waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” it said.
China reacted angrily to the presence of Benfold in what it claims are its territorial waters.
“The PLA Southern Theater Command organized naval and air forces to track, monitor and drive the destroyer away with warnings,” the Chinese military said in a statement.
“What the United States has done is seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security, and is yet another hard proof that it is pursuing maritime hegemony and militarizing the South China Sea. Facts fully prove that the United States is a ‘risk taker’ in the South China Sea and the ‘greatest destroyer’ of peace and stability in the South China Sea, “it said.
China claims almost the entire 1.3 million square kilometers of South China Sea as its sovereign territory.
“U.S. forces are operating in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have been doing for more than a century,” the U.S. Navy said.